Micronesia (Marshall Islands)
The first Micronesian navigators arrived in the Marshall Islands sometime between 500 and 2000 BC. Little is known of their origin or culture.

The Marshalls were never united under a single leader, though one chief often controlled several atolls and at times an entire chain. Before the arrival of Europeans, the individual chiefs held absolute authority over their lands, and - living on such narrow stretches of land - their claims to their parcels were often hotly contested.

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas ceded ownership of all of Micronesia to Spain. The Marshalls, however, were off the main trade routes and consequently received little attention from early European explorers. In 1525, Alonso de Salazar of Spain became the first European to sight the islands, but Spain did nothing to colonize them. After another 200 years devoid of Europeans, the islands received a visit from English captain John Marshall (from whom they later took their name) in 1788. Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue came through in the early 1800s and drew the first detailed maps of the islands.

Traders and whalers began to visit the islands en masse in the early 1800s, until encounters with the 'friendly' native Marshallese began to turn sour. Ship after ship putting into port at various atolls in the Marshalls quickly weighed anchor after the death of their captain or crew members. Violence was on the decline when the first Protestant missionaries arrived in 1857, setting up churches and schools and gradually undermining the traditional authority of the island chiefs.

Germany annexed the Marshalls in 1885 but didn't place government officials on the islands until 1906, leaving island affairs to a group of powerful German trading companies. Japan took over in 1914 and colonized the Marshalls extensively, developing and fortifying large bases on many of the islands.

The first Micronesian islands captured by the Americans in WWII were at Kwajalein Atoll in 1944. Majuro Atoll was taken next and quickly developed into a base for aircraft carriers. Within weeks some 30 other islands had fallen. After the war, the Americans immediately began to test atomic bombs on Bikini and Enewetok atolls. (Kwajalein was later established as a missile testing site.) Chief Juda of Bikini was convinced to move his people - for the 'benefit of mankind' - to Rongerik Atoll, on the understanding that they'd be able to return to their homeland after the tests were over. A few months later, the USA exploded the first of the 23 nuclear devices that were to be detonated at the atoll, 500ft (150m) over its lagoon.

The Bikinians nearly starved from inadequate food supplies on Rongerik, and two years later they were moved to Kwajalein Atoll and then to Kili Island. In the 1970s, they were told it was safe to return to Bikini, where they found two whole islands entirely blown away and most of the others treeless. Nevertheless, they stayed, and within a few years they were found to have dangerous levels of radiation in their bodies and were moved off the island again.

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Today, scientists from California's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory are using Bikini as a case study in ways to clean up radiation. So far, they've had some success with using potassium fertilizer to block the uptake of cesium in plants, but there are still long-term problems with eating anything grown on the island. Ironically, as the Bikini cleanup continues, the Marshallese government is considering the atoll as a possible dump site for commercial radioactive waste material produced by Asian and North American power plants.

Meanwhile, in 1973 the Marshall Islands boldly withdrew from the Congress of Micronesia, seeking political independence. The move worked and, in 1979, the Marshalls' constitution became effective. More recently, the Marshalls have been hit by El Niño in 1997 and 1998, receiving almost no rainfall. Drought affected most of the country's population, particularly on Majuro and Ebeye.

For more information on the History of the Marshall Islands, go to:

  • Pre-Colonial Period: Following the visits by Spanish vessels in the 1500s, contact with European ships became frequent in the late 18th and early 19th century. From the 1840s onwards beachcombers, traders and then missonaries became residents on several atolls, influencing the life of the Marshallese population
  • German Period (1886–1914): Germany bought the Marshall Islands off Spain in 1885. It established a small administration, run first as a concession company and later administered directly from Berlin. The main economic development was the expansion of copra industry on the atolls and the commencement of phosphate mining on Nauru.
  • Japanese Period (1914–1945): Japan acquired the Marshall Islands, with the exception of Nauru, during World War I. It established a larger administration which continued the expansion of the copra industry, but also developed fishing and handicraft. During World War II many atolls were developed into formidable military bases.
  • U.S. Period (1945–1946): While Wake Island had been under US control since the Spanish-American War of 1898, the rest of the Marshalls came under US influence as a result of the Pacific War. Commencing in 1944 several atolls were captured, with remainder coming under US control with the surrender of the Japanese forces in September 1945.
  • Trust Territory Period (1947–1946): As a result of the post World War II rearrangement of the former Mandates of the League of Nations, Micronesia, and with it the Marshall Islands, became a Trust Territory administered by the USA on behalf of the United Nations.
  • Post-Independence (1989—): Following a plebiscite the population of the Marshall Islands preferred autonomy from the USA. In 1989 the Compact of Free Associaton was signed which gave the Marshalls independence, while ensuring US government funding of many of its programs.